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Healthy eating for children (age one year and above)
By the time your child is starting to stand up and take their first steps, they should be joining in with family meals. As they are more active at this age, they will need a varied, high-energy diet for good health and growth.
Types of food
Toddlers under two years old have small tummies and can’t eat large amounts of food all in one go, so they need small meals with healthy snacks in between. Like the rest of the family, your toddler needs to eat a variety of foods from the following four groups:
- dairy foods – milk, cheese, yoghurt, fromage frais
- bread, potatoes and other cereals - including rice, pasta, maize, breakfast cereals, chapatti etc
- all types of fruit and vegetables
- meat, fish and alternatives (one or two portions a day) – including poultry, eggs, beans, lentils and nuts (but not whole nuts for children under five)
Foods containing fat and sugar (e.g. biscuits, cakes, puddings, ice cream, fats and oils) may also be given in limited amounts, but not instead of the foods listed above. You can give boys up to four portions of oily fish a week (like mackerel, salmon and sardines), but it’s best not to give girls more than two portions a week.
If you are bringing up your child as a vegetarian or vegan, make sure you give them two to three portions of vegetables or nuts a day to make sure they get enough protein and iron.
Milk is still important for children of this age. Whole milk and full-fat dairy products are a good source of vitamin A which helps the body resist infections and is needed for healthy skin and eyes. You can continue to breastfeed after the age of one if you want to, but also give your child full-fat cow’s milk in a cup or beaker as their main drink (this should totally replace infant formula now).
Continue to use full-fat milk and dairy products (cheese, yoghurt, fromage frais etc) until your child is two, as up to this age they need the extra fat and vitamins. Semi-skimmed milk can be introduced from two years of age, provided your child is a good eater and is growing well.
Skimmed milk is not suitable for any child under five years old.
Wholegrain foods like wholemeal bread, wholemeal pasta and brown rice can be introduced gradually, so that by the time your child is five they will be used to a healthy and varied adult diet. It’s not a good idea to give only wholemeal foods however, as they may fill your child up too quickly to get all the calories they need.
Don’t add bran to cereals or use bran-enriched cereals as they can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb iron.
Offer fruit and vegetables at every meal
Many children don’t like cooked vegetables so you may have to be imaginative – for instance you could puree some together to put into a sauce. If your child refuses to eat vegetables at all, keep offering them but also offer more fruit. Make sure you show that you like eating vegetables, and don’t make a big fuss if they refuse. All children under five should be given vitamin drops (see below), to make sure they are getting everything they need. Here are some ideas on how to work more fruit and vegetables into your child’s diet:
- top pizza with vegetables or canned pineapple
- give carrot sticks, slices of pepper and peeled apple for snacks
- mix chopped or mashed vegetables with rice, mashed potatoes, meat sources or dhal
- mix fruit with fromage frais for a tasty dessert
- chop prunes or dried apricots into cereal or yoghurt, or add to a stew
Getting enough iron
Lack of iron leads to anaemia, which can hold back your child’s physical and mental development. Iron comes in two forms – the first is found in meat and fish and is easily absorbed by the body. The second is found in plant foods and is not as easy to absorb. Eating meat or fish is useful as it is rich in iron and also helps the body to absorb iron from other foods. It’s also a good idea to give foods or drink that are high in vitamin C at mealtimes, as it helps the absorption of iron from non-meat sources.
Vitamins and Healthy Start
Children under five years who are breastfeeding should be given vitamin drops A, C and D (children who are drinking 500ml of infant formula a day do not need these as they are already added). You may be entitled to free milk, fresh fruit and vegetables, infant formula and vitamins under the Healthy Start scheme.